A new NBL season is upon us and last season’s finalists have had very different starts.
Catch up on all the results from the opening round so far.
Kings deny Hawks in seesawing encounter
– David Gavin
Entering a new era the Illawarra Hawks have taken it right up to their arch rivals and the defending champion Sydney Kings on the NBL’s opening night, but fell just short in front of a crowd a little larger than 4,000.
The Hawks had a 92-91 lead with three minutes remaining before the Kings’ star of last season Xavier Cooks (24 points) and standout new recruit Derick Walton Jr (32 points) put their foot down to take Sydney to 106-97 win in Wollongong.
Jacob Jackomas brought the same energy and passion that kept his team in the contest in the 42-year-old’s first game in charge after Brian Goorjian departed, opting not to take up the third year option of his contract after leading Illawarra to finals in his first two years.
After suffering two double-figure losses to exit last season’s playoffs in straight sets, the Hawks never let the fast starting Kings out of their sight on Saturday, largely thanks to a man who was part of Sydney’s Championship success last season.
Having made the switch from Sydney to Illawarra, Wani Swaka Lo Buluk shot 14 points and kept the deficit to three at quarter time and one by the half, until he dried up.
Cue Tyler Harvey as the Californian found some of the form that had him second in the 2020/21 MVP voting behind Bryce Cotton with 18 points for the match, and with Lachlan Dent sinking 19 points, Sydney were never comfortable.
The Kings, in response had Derrick Walton Jr, Cooks and former Hawk Justin Simon pool close to 80 points between them. Simon was also dynamic off the screen with nine rebounds to go with his 19 points.
The Hawks led by three heading into the final term where they streaked away by nine, until the defending champions bit back.
Player movement was a feature of the shortened off-season across all 10 NBL teams, and both the Kings and Hawks were no exception. But the new look line-ups did not change the trend of classic contests between the foes.
The Kings were without MVP Jaylen Adams, Jarell Martin and now dual NBL-NBA champion Ian Clark of the Golden State Warriors, who all departed the Kings. In stepped Walton Jr. and Simon.
While the Hawks surprisingly let go of Antonius Cleveland and Xavier Rathan-Mayes to NBL rivals, as well as losing Boomer Duop Reath and American Justinian Jessup. In their place, Swaka lo Buluk, NBA experienced Justin Robinson (10 points, five rebounds) and former Phoenix Suns draftee George King (14 points, five rebounds).
In a huge blow to the competition it was confirmed in July, last season’s breakout MVP Adams would not be returning to the Kings. And that became an on court reality for the Kings on Saturday night in Wollongong.
Adams signed for Red Star Belgrade and in his place came Walton Jr ably assisted by former Hawk Justin Simon. The American duo had hit double figures in the points department by half-time with Walton in particular putting his stamp on the contest with five assists in the first half.
“I love his herky, jerky game,” former King and Boomer Shane Heal on ESPN.
Corey “Homicide” Williams agreed. “That’s the biggest thing, finding an import that can score but he also has the balance and the ability to find and create for his teammates.”
They were the pair keeping the Kings in it, especially Simon in the third quarter as the Hawks gained ascendancy. Former Detroit Piston Walton adding eight assists to his points haul.
HAWKS’ COACH DEBUTS
Three games in the NBL Blitz had prefaced this, but the first match of this season’s Freeway series was a welcome to the big time for Jackomas, in front of a packed home crowd, against Illawarra’s arch rivals and defending champions.
“He cleaned aeroplanes, he worked in pizza shops, he has worked his way from the very bottom to sit in that chair tonight,” ESPN’s Jack Heverin remarked on the call.
The immaculately dressed Chase Buford complete in a tartan suit jacket juxtaposed Jackomas in the short-sleeved polo, barking instructions as good as his predecessor, emulated the mood and trend of the night.
The hunted dominating early, but Illawarra keeping close enough to eventually rein in their arch rivals to hit the lead.
COOKS’ NEXT LEVEL?
After an injury-plagued first two seasons with the Kings, the hugely talented Xavier Cooks announced himself in the championship campaign.
Average statistics like 15 points and 10 rebounds confirmed the 27-year-old can rebound, he can score in the paint, and can even set up his teammates when required with more than a couple a game.
But from range, he was 30 per cent last season. Early doors on Saturday, he showed the ability he has from that range.
“If he can knock down that three, even mid-range, respect from the perimeter (he can) take his game to an even higher level,” Williams remarked on ESPN.
Cooks was quiet early, and his rebounding remained non-existent, and he started to find the basket as the Kings were playing catch up in the third quarter and then exploded on the points front.
FIRST COACH’S CHALLENGE
Late in the second quarter, Chase Buford launched the first coach’s challenge of the new season, which commentators were certain would be overturned and replays appeared unlikely to favour the Kings.
Buford questioned the foul call on Brazilian centre Tim Soares under the rim, which was described by recently retired Phoenix player Adam Gibson as “arms dropping down” on Hawks’ NBA recruit Justin Robinson as he strode to the paint.
“That’s an automatic call by the referee,” Gibson said. He was soon to be in shock.
“Has to be definitive to overturn the call … Chase Buford is one and 0,” Jack Heverin summarised.
Capturing most of the ball on contact appeared to secure the challenge.
Phoenix edge JackJumpers in nervy NBL season opener
– Michael Randall
White-hot South East Melbourne captain Kyle Adnam has led the depleted Phoenix to a nervy five-point defeat of last season’s grand final runner-up Tasmania, 84-79.
The story of South East Melbourne’s NBL22 was its inability to hold onto a lead and it looked like old habits were about to die hard as Tasmania tied the scores up in the last quarter, after the Phoenix had led by as many as 18.
But a horror moment for Josh Magette, who was pinged for taking too long to get the ball over the half way line, undid the JackJumpers’ good work.
They’d expended so much energy to get back into the game and, with the JackJumpers now deflated, Junior Madut made a lay-up off a Mitch Creek feed, then Adnam produced a wonderful moment, putting Tassie star Jack McVeigh on skates before draining a step back three.
Add a contested floater in the lane and then a little pull up jumper off the glass and you have your matchwinner, right there.
It was the 28-year-old’s first 30-point game in the NBL and he said when the JackJumpers evened it up, it was go time.
“Looking up at the scoreboard, with the clock winding down, we often have had conversations about closing games and how important it is and I grabbed Creeky in the huddle and I said, ‘we’ve got to get into some action, we’ve got to try and get us home’,” Adnam said.
“We just wanted to get back to something (on offence) that was solid for us and, fortunately, I was able to make a few plays out of it.”
Coach Simon Mitchell said he was proud of the group’s resolve, praising the youngsters he called upon to play heavy minutes.
“Different group, mate,” Mitchell said when asked if he was nervous as the JackJumpers came hard.
“We were a little bit out on our feet. We didn’t execute as well as we possibly could have but it was great to see Kyle and Creeky make big plays down the stretch.
“Good to see guys defend and the last two minutes, I thought were pretty good.
“We got some kids out there. It’s a great learning experience for them.”
The Phoenix largely maintained a double-digit buffer until the last minute of the third quarter, when Tassie import Rashard Kelly came alive scoring the next 13 JackJumpers’ points to make a game of it.
McVeigh and Magette hit huge buckets down the stretch, but the Phoenix banished the demons of NBL22 in gritty fashion, with new boy Madut also a key.
Creek missed a free throw up two with 12.1 seconds left, but made the second to make it a three-point game. He then intercepted the pass and was fouled again, taking the long walk to the other end, making both free throws to extend the lead to five, before Tassie made a late bucket and then fouled Adnam. He got a standing ovation as he potted both free throws to end the game.
Adnam’s game-high 30 points featured six three-pointers, while Creek had 23.
Outside of McVeigh (20) and Kelly’s (18) brilliance for the Jackies, development player Sean McDonald showed his impressive chops with 11 points.
Still missing Gary Browne, Trey Kell and Ryan Broekhoff through injury, the Phoenix next play Thursday against Illawarra, while the JackJumpers are on a short turnaround against Cairns Monday.
South East Melbourne did not win a game during the pre-season and it had plenty of alarm bells ringing among the Phoenix faithful. But Creek didn’t play in any of those. His all-round game is vital to everything the Phoenix do and the JackJumpers were overly Creek conscious, leading to open looks for Adnam from deep and opening up the lane for Williams to do his best work. His battle with fellow star Aussie forward McVeigh was a feature.
The JackJumpers were smacked on the glass at both ends of the floor, with a differential of 43-33. Williams, Creek, Grant Anticevich and Dane Pineau were relentless on the glass against the undersized JackJumpers frontline. They’ll hope Aussie big man Will Magnay can help remedy that deficiency, but he won’t be in a Jackies uniform until at least the beginning of November, as he continues to recover from a knee injury. Conversely, when Chinese seven-footer Zhou Qi joins the Phoenix they will have three of the best rebounders in the league in he, Williams and Pineau.
Originally published as NBL 2022/23 Round 1: South East Melbourne Phoenix and Sydney Kings make winning starts